“And after all, what is a garden but another miniature encounter with paradise?”*
There is a corner of Heliopolis, in north-east Cairo, that is in a way “forever England.” It is a beautiful, peaceful garden, with wide lawns forming an expansive vista planted with imposing trees. Yet within lies a bitter truth: for this is a British and Commonwealth War Cemetery, testament to the last great European conflict of the C20 that rapidly escalated into worldwide war.
It is one of the most moving and poignant gardens I know: a quiet haven, a sanctuary from the rough and tumble world outside, alive with hoopoes, swallows and wagtails. Yet it is also the last resting place of men from all over the world – from India to Scotland, Australia to the Sudan, Canada to Yugoslavia.
On a misty, chilly December morning, with the sun filtering tentatively through the haze, we encountered within the walls a perfect tranquillity. With only the birds, and a few discreet groundsmen for company, we wandered among row upon row of headstones, positioned in perfectly shaped beds planted with flowers and shrubs – Canna lilies, geraniums, plumbago – and herbs such as rosemary, and tended with loving care. Each stone recorded a life cruelly cut short by conflict, most from the summer of 1942 through to the end of 1943; yet nothing could be further from the horror of El-Alamein and its aftermath, when the barrage of artillery could be heard in Alexandria some 100 kilometres to the east.
In all, 1,830 lie buried in the Heliopolis Cemetery. With the exception of one nurse from Queen Alexandra’s Nursing Service they are all servicemen – infantry and artillery men, air crew, sailors, intelligence officers, medics, supplies and support personnel. The breadth of nationalities is astonishing: the British have the highest number, but others – South African, Polish, French, East and West African, are here in numbers too.
Aside from the numbers, what is really sobering is the age range. Very clearly, the average is below 25 years.
Of course this is by no means the only war cemetery in Egypt, let alone North Africa. There are many in the area of El-Alamein, the total number of British and Commonwealth graves being about 38,000, with – mark this – a similar number of dead whose graves are unknown.
And there are memorials in all sorts of unexpected places: there is one to a small group of Italian soldiers placed just outside the area where we live. Well to the east of Cairo, on the road to Suez, it bears witness to the extraordinary extent of the North Africa campaign between 1941 and 1943.
But if the garden is such a lasting memorial, what message do we take away from a visit to the War Cemetery? One thing is never to forget the ugly, bitter truth of conflict, too often masked by the rhetoric of stirring speech. The other, perhaps, is that such an encounter with “a miniature paradise” brings us to a remembrance of the importance of all of God’s creation without exception – from the smallest plants placed in these beautiful beds, to the spreading trees, to each human being who walks this earth.
“Everything is – everything exists – only because I love. All is bound up in love alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a tiny particle of love, shall return to the universal and eternal source.” Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, casualty of war, in Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”
* Diarmaid MacCulloch: “Silence, A Christian History” (discussing the Carthusian Order), published by Allen Lane, 2013.